The opening scene of Short Term 12 is the perfect beginning to a tale of youth workers--it starts with a poop story. Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) tells his messy narrative to Nate, the newest addition to the small band of young adults working in the California foster-care facility, which perfectly sets up the tone for the entire film. Just as Mason finishes his story, a red-haired boy runs screaming from the facility and must be chased down by Mason and Grace (Brie Larson), who welcome Nate to the family of Short Term 12. This tiny community is characterized by a paradoxical mix of authenticity and reservation, a rawness that only comes after emotional walls have been slowly dismantled through the building of trust. Grace gives Nate some first-day advice: "You're not their therapist. You're here to create a safe environment, and that's it."
Grace's own words are tested with the arrival of Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever), a sarcastic and sullen girl who struggles with self-harm and lashing out against her caretakers. Grace sees the Jayden's brokenness, and it's like looking in a mirror, causing past emotional wounds to be reopened. Her relationship with Jayden is a beautiful picture of pacing-then-leading as she moves from facility worker to friend to advocate. In fact, I haven't seen a filmic example of pacing-then-leading better than a scene where Grace follows Jayden after she runs away from the facility. Chasing her down, Jayden reminds Grace that she can't touch her--all official authority that came with the facility is lost outside the boundaries of the property. Grace offers to simply walk with Jayden, to be with her and for her, wherever she goes. So they walk together. Their journey ultimately leads them back to where they began, but it's a remarkably different relationship upon their return. Grace is relentless in her empathy and care for Jayden, causing a transformation for both young women as they learn to heal.
Filmmaker Destin Cretton has crafted a world that is both heartbreaking and heartwarming--it's certainly emotionally moving, and I found myself wiping my eyes numerous times. Short Term 12 is one of the most affecting and honest portrayal of youth work I've seen on film, sitting alongside The Kid with a Bike and About a Boy. While the youth workers in Short Term 12 are facility employees and therapists, there are strong parallels to Christian youth ministry, both in the church and the community. (I wish there were more Christian films that expressed the pathos and artistry and spirituality of Short Term 12. We need more of those films.) The young people of the facility are wounded by abandonment and abuse, frightened and cautious about opening up their souls to the adults around them. They reveal their pain through their art. A rap song from a troubled young man named Marcus is devastating as he reveals his past through the profane and affecting lyrics. Jayden shows Grace a children's story she wrote and illustrated in her notebook, a tale about an octopus being slowly eaten by a deceitful shark. Mason and Grace just listen and weep and empathize. It's a typical day in the life of a youth worker.
There are no perfect people in Short Term 12. Grace, for all her strength and wisdom and resilience and passion, is also wounded and guarded and impulsive. She nervously scratches at her cuticles, pouring herself into her work to overshadow the pain that lingers in her soul. She breaks her own rules with Jayden, becoming more than just a paid caretaker--she steps into the messiness of Jayden's life and loses her own sense of healthy boundaries. She also keeps up emotional walls with Mason, who loves and cares for her with a patience and charm unlike many on-screen boyfriends I've seen. I was also impressed that the story didn't take the route of demonizing social workers and programs, particularly as Grace takes matters into her own hands with Jayden. In a confrontation with her boss, he offers a surprisingly thoughtful response to her passionate pleas for justice and intervention. This isn't a case of "break the rules and buck the system, and everything will be better." The system, like people, is flawed. But it's what we've got, and sometimes it truly helps. The same could be said for North American youth ministry--the system is certainly flawed, but it also offers hope and redemption and grace to broken young people. It's why I love what I do. Every youth worker needs to see this film, if only to reaffirm their calling and remind them that what we do does, in fact, make a difference.
I don't think it's an accident that the heroine of Short Term 12 is named Grace. She is broken and beautiful, pouring out strength for others through her own weakness, a voice for the voiceless while she struggles to articulate her own story with raw honesty. She is a gift to the other people around her. Through her own wounds, she heals.
We proved to be gentle among you, like a nursing mother caring for her own children. We were so taken by you that we not only eagerly shared with you God’s good news, but we also shared with you our own lives. That’s how much you’ve come to mean to us. Don’t you remember, my brothers and sisters, how hard we worked and struggled? We worked day and night so that we wouldn’t be a burden to any of you and so that we could continue to proclaim to you the good news of God.
For what is our true hope, our true joy, our victor’s crown in all this? It is nothing if it isn’t you standing before our Lord Jesus the Anointed at His arrival. You are our glory! You are our joy!
(1 Thessalonians 2:7-9, 19-20. The Voice)